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Intelligent Machines

The Start of Computer Games

Created at MIT, Spacewar inspired future game pioneers.

The first game invented specifically for the computer appeared in early 1962. A new $120,000 computer had just arrived at MIT that was faster and easier to use than the handful of other hulking machines on campus. And a group of young MIT programmers who just happened to be reading science fiction books about space battle had been itching to test it out. In less than a year, the programmers, led by Steven Russell, produced Spacewar, a game complete with rocket-powered spaceships, missiles, gravitational effects, and even an unpredictable “hyperspace” function. Although it was never commercialized, Spacewar inspired those who would bring video games to the masses 10 years later.

As Russell and his friends awaited the arrival of the new computer, a PDP-1 built and donated by Digital Equipment Corporation, they were already thinking about what demonstration programs to write for it. Demonstration programs for earlier computers were not very exciting. One, for example, moved a mouse through a maze that had been created by the user. In another program, the user manipulated console switches to change patterns on the screen. But the MIT programmers wanted to create a game that demanded skill and strategy and kept players engaged for more than a few minutes. Russell had just finished reading a series of books by Edward “Doc” Smith about warriors who zipped across galaxies in spaceships. It didn’t take long for the idea to dawn on him and his friends: Spacewar!

The PDP-1 that finally arrived at the end of 1961 was nothing like the other computers Russell had used. For one thing, he could turn it on with the flip of a single switch. And it was the first computer he used that could produce an immediate printout of the code he was entering, saving much time and hassle when he was debugging his program. “I thought this was a lot more interesting, and I wanted to try it,” says Russell, now a software engineer with Nohau in Campbell, CA, a company that makes software-debugging tools.

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Working in his spare time, Russell programmed the first version of the two-player game. By flipping switches on the PDP-1 console, each player could rotate and accelerate one of two ships and fire torpedoes against a background of randomly scattered stars. But fellow MIT hackers wanted to make the game more realistic and challenging. Peter Samson encoded the night sky so that the stars appeared in real-life constellations. Dan Edwards programmed a sun in the middle of the screen that exerted gravitational pull on the ships. And J. M. Graetz added the final touch: a function that made the ship disappear into hyperspace and reappear in an unpredictable place on the screen. By the spring of 1962, the first computer game was complete.

Russell considered selling the game. But the only customer would have been Digital Equipment, because his game could run only on the PDP-1. So he let people access the code, and soon programmers began to adapt it to work on other computers, allowing the game to spread across the MIT campus and to other universities. It ended up at the University of Utah, where a student named Nolan Bushnell discovered it in the mid-1960s. In 1971, Bushnell invented a coin-operated arcade game called Computer Space, which resembled Spacewar. It was a commercial failure, but that didn’t stop him. A year later, he founded Atari.

After the creation of Spacewar, Russell moved to Stanford University and has since spent his career in the computing and banking industries, including stints with a couple of gaming startups. He’s never made any money from Spacewar or any of its descendants, but money wasn’t the point. “The main purpose was to see what we could do and see if we could make it work,” says Russell. Today, Spacewar lives on. At the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA, a group of engineers will soon complete the restoration of a PDP-1, which will be exhibited to the public. Visitors will then get to experience computing history by playing Spacewar for themselves.

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